Jim Utter (Thats Racing) – Could this be a prelude to a championship?
Jimmie Johnson racing for the win in Tuesday’s rain-delayed AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway or in contention for a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship would not be surprising.
But losing the race – and perhaps the title – to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon?
It’s been a while since that possibility had seeds in reality.
Gordon held off Johnson during a wild 15-lap, sometimes side-by-side battle to the checkered flag and emerged with his third win of the season and another mark in the NASCAR history books.
The win is Gordon’s 85th in the series, leaving him in sole possession of third place in the all-time list. He was previously tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip with 84 each.
“To win 85, you know, is unbelievable. And to do it here at Atlanta. I’m not sure really (how) to kind of rank everything,” Gordon said.
“The significance of this win today, the timing of it, doing it here in Atlanta on such a tough race track, battling with Jimmie, the bonus points, the 85th win, the momentum that this team has got right now – man, this is cool.”
The conditions also made it difficult.
The race was originally scheduled for Sunday night, but the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee forced a postponement until Tuesday morning. Even then, the race was put under caution twice for rain, including a 24-minute red flag.
But all 325 laps were completed and Gordon led more of them than any other driver (146).
Johnson took the lead for the final time on Lap 246, passing Martin Truex Jr., who had taken two new tires on his last pit stop.
After a caution for a wreck involving Regan Smith and Mark Martin, Johnson still led on the restart on Lap 255.
Gordon passed Johnson for the lead on Lap 276. He remained out front through a final round of green-flag pit stops and thwarted Johnson’s charge as he closed in the final laps.
“The car was driving perfect. And then all of a sudden, with about 15 to go, it started to really loosen up. And I was hoping to look up and see (Johnson) loosening up as well,” Gordon said.
“If he was, he wasn’t showing it, because he was coming hard.”
Once, Johnson got way underneath Gordon and appeared ready to make the pass but was forced to fall back in line.
“I think when he got underneath me and didn’t complete the pass, to me that’s what allowed me to go, OK, we still are going to win this race,” Gordon said.
“We’re having a lot of fun right now. The race cars are awesome. And we’ve got a lot of momentum. So we can’t wait to get to next week, Richmond, as well as get this Chase started.”
Could that be bad news for Johnson’s five-year title reign?
If it is, Johnson isn’t buying it.
“We know the reality of our race team and if we’re a contender or not. And I feel we’re building in that direction and we’re getting stronger each week,” Johnson said.
“We still have weak points. We still are not qualifying like we need to.”
Still, with one race before the Chase begins, Johnson is the series points leader, with a 21-point advantage over Kyle Busch.
With only one win this season, however, Johnson would not be the top seed once the Chase begins.
“He may not have had the dominance that we’d seen before in recent years, but it’s still Jeff Gordon. And it’s so cool to race that hard with him,” Johnson said of his teammate.
“Even if I did come in second, it’s OK. I’d much rather have won. But we left it all out there on the track and he got it done today.”
Tony Stewart finished third, Kurt Busch was fourth and Carl Edwards was fifth.
After Gordon’s 146 laps, Matt Kenseth was second in laps led with 64, and Johnson led 29 laps after struggling early in the day and nearly going a lap down.
Nine drivers have clinched at least a wild-card berth in the Chase: Johnson, Kyle Busch, Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski.